Heyday, Age Concern's membership scheme for the over-50s, should have worked. On paper, the combination of a sizeable baby-boomer target audience and an £8m launch budget should have translated into a runaway success.
Yet it has managed to fail in spectacular fashion. Last week, the scheme, which launched in June 2006, revealed it was slashing its membership targets from 500,000 to 50,000 and folding the operation into the parent organisation.
Age Concern confirmed that marketing director Gordon Rankin's job is safe but 'some staff' - the charity refused to give specific numbers - are in consultation about their roles. Its deal with customer publisher Redwood to produce the Heyday magazine is being re-tendered and advertising through Clemmow Hornby Inge and direct activity through Hall Moore CHI is on hold.
The scheme's only apparent success has been its legal battle against government legislation requiring workers to retire at 65, which has attracted national press coverage and was referred to the European Court of Justice at the end of last year.
Those acquainted with the 50-plus market - 'younger older' consumers approaching retirement age - are not surprised by developments. 'Heyday launched with a whimper rather than a bang,' says one agency source. 'The welcome pack promised a lot, but all I have received is a few copies of the magazine and a mailer.'
Dick Stroud, managing director of 20plus30.com, a marketing consultancy specialising in the over-50 market, adds: 'Lots of us working in the 50-plus area thought it was only a matter of time before this happened.'
Stroud, who joined Heyday to discover what was on offer, describes the launch as 'dreadful'; the website was not even fully operational when the marketing communications kicked in. But he says the entire concept suffers from a lack of coherent purpose.
'On the one hand, it was a campaigning organisation, but it was also offering discounts and hard-edged commercial stuff, and I think it was embarrassed by that side of the product.'
If part of the Heyday business plan was to generate revenue from the magazine, it has struggled. An analysis by 20plus30.com reveals that the November edition attracted significantly less advertising than magazines from Saga and Emap's Yours, which are aimed at a similar audience.
Victoria Scott, publisher of Reader's Digest, believes Heyday's magazine failed to adopt the right tone, arguing that it has made the mistake of having its readers' ages as its starting point. 'The magazine seems to be saying "why don't you do something because you are retired and have a lot of spare time" instead of saying "why don't you have this experience because it is a great thing to do".'
To support her case, she points to YouGov research commissioned by Reader's Digest, which shows that 50- to 59-year-olds perceive themselves to be an average age of 38.
Heyday's failure is all the more surprising given that it is based on an influential US organisation called American Association of Retired People (AARP).
Launched initially to combat unfairness in the US healthcare system that prevented older people accessing health insurance, AARP now has more than 35m members and is the leading non-profit membership organisation for older people. Over the years it has built a reputation as a robust campaigning organisation, as well as a trusted provider of products and services to members.
'The AARP scheme was extremely successful because it was founded by people who really wanted to improve the lot of retired people, so there was purpose, passion and meaning for those involved; Heyday feels much more manufactured,' says Janet Kiddle, managing director of market research company Steel Magnolias, which specialises in the 50-plus arena.
The cost of membership for Heyday, which starts at £20, is mooted as another reason why it fell so far short of its original target. Tim Bull, group marketing director for Saga, says that attaining a six-figure membership in such a short space of time was always going to be difficult. 'It has taken venerable organisations such as the RSPB and the National Trust generations to get to seven-figure memberships,' he says. 'British consumers are somewhat reluctant to join clubs until they have a good understanding of what they are about.
'I suspect that what this demonstrates is that it is a much bigger job to launch a brand in the over-50s market than people might think,' he adds.
Heyday is now abandoning its consumer-led marketing approach; pointing the way forward, an Age Concern spokesman reveals there has been significant interest in Heyday among employers. 'Our revised strategy and business plan builds on this interest and is based on a corporate sales approach through which employers purchase Heyday for their staff,' he says.
Heyday's problems will no doubt make marketers think twice before attempting to get under the skin of the over-50s, but given that the UK has an ageing population, they are a group who cannot be ignored and will provide rich pickings to brands that get it right.
ESSENTIALS - GREY MARKETING LESSONS
- Don't confuse youth with youthfulness. 'Younger older' consumers may feel youthful but that does not mean that they have a young person's mindset.
- Develop age-neutral advertising. Too often, advertising focuses on the 18-35 age group, when it could target younger older consumers with the same communications.
- Don't pigeon-hole them. An OMD/20plus30.com study found that 50-year-olds' behaviour was affected by their lifestyle more than their age.
- Be aspirational. People don't aspire to retire and nobody wants to be reminded of this as they approach this stage of their lives.
- 50-plus consumers are often more sceptical than their younger counterparts, so it will not be easy to build a brand overnight.
- Do your research. People often make false assumptions about older consumers and what is relevant to a 50-year-old may not be to a 70-year-old.